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Philadelphia v. New Jersey

Citation. 437 U.S. 617 (1978)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Operators of private landfills in New Jersey and several cities in other States that had agreements with these operators for waste disposal brought suit against New Jersey attacking the statute and regulations on preemption and other constitutional grounds.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Although the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate commerce among the States, many subjects of potential federal regulation under that power inevitably escape congressional attention because of their local character and their number and diversity.


The statutory provision in question provides: “No person shall bring into this State any solid or liquid waste which originated or was collected outside the territorial limits of the State, except garbage to be fed to swine in the State of New Jersey, until the commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Protection shall determine that such action can be permitted without endangering the public health, safety and welfare and has promulgated regulations permitting and regulating the treatment and disposal of such waste in this State. The Commissioner promulgated regulations permitting four categories of waste to enter the State. Apart from these exceptions, however, New Jersey closed its borders to all waste from other States.


Does the state law that prohibits anyone from bringing into the State any solid or liquid waste which originated or was collected outside the territorial limits of the State violate the Constitution?


Yes cities in Pennsylvania and New York find it expedient or necessary to send their waste into New Jersey for disposal, and New Jersey claims the right to close its borders on such traffic. Tomorrow, cities in New Jersey may find it expedient and necessary to send their waste into Pennsylvania or New York for disposal, and those States might then claim the right to close their borders. The Commerce Clause will protect New Jersey in the future, just as it protects for neighbors now, from efforts by one State to isolate itself in the stream of interstate commerce from a problem shared by all.


Justice Rehnquist

New Jersey may require germ-infected rags or diseased meat to be disposed of as best as possible within the State, but at the same time prohibit the importation of such items for disposal at the facilities that are set up within New Jersey for disposal of such material generated within the State. The physical fact of life that New Jersey must somehow dispose of its own noxious items does not mean that it must serve as a depository for those of every other State. Similarly, New Jersey should be free to prohibit the importation of solid waste because of the health and safety problems that such waste poses to its citizens.


The New Jersey statute is not a quarantine law. There has been no claim here that the very movement of waste into or through New Jersey endangers health, or that waste must be disposed of as soon and as close to its point of generation as possible. The harms caused by waste are said to arise after its disposal in landfill sites, and at that point, as New Jersey concedes, there is no basis to distinguish out-of-state waste from domestic waste. If one is inherently harmful, so is the other. Yet New Jersey has banned the former while leaving its landfill sites open to the latter. The New Jersey law blocks the importation of waste in an obvious effort to saddle those outside the State with the entire burden of slowing the flow of refuse into New Jersey’s remaining landfill sites. That legislative effort is clearly impermissible under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Because the State has overtly moved to slow or freeze the flow of commerce for protectionist reasons, the state law violates the Constitution.

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